When Michael Borrelli tells the story of how he met John Cariani, it reads like a movie script -- you know the kind, where a talented young actor goes on a life-changing road trip to New York City, hoping to get his big break?
This story is just like that – except for one thing.
“That trip was just a disaster,” Borrelli recalled with a laugh. “But it had a silver lining, because without it, I probably would never have met John.”
Before we cut to the road trip, let’s get a little backstory on the actor. Born in Buffalo, Borrelli grew up in San Diego where he discovered a passion for performing at a young age. He studied acting for two years at the University of Southern California but left the BFA program to train at the famed Larry Moss Studio instead. “I worked with incredible actors of all ages, and Larry is an amazing teacher,” Borrelli remembers.
Deciding to finish his bachelor’s degree, he enrolled at the tiny College of Santa Fe – to limit distractions, focus on his craft, and maybe be a big fish in a smaller pond. It turned out to be a smart move. Borrelli had already performed in over a dozen mainstage shows at the college when one day, just before spring break, a professor started talking about a Shakespeare festival just north of New York City that gave a small group of young actors the chance to perform in some of the world’s greatest plays each summer.
“I immediately said: That’s amazing. I want to do that. How do I do that?” Borrelli said. “Some friends and I decided to jump on a Greyhound bus from Santa Fe to New York for spring break. And I was determined to get an audition for this Shakespeare festival.”
The professor was dubious about Borrelli’s chances – no auditions were scheduled, it was the wrong time of year – but he gave him a phone number for Terry O’Brien, Artistic Director at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, and wished his student good luck.
Borrelli hopped on a bus with his friends and rode for two straight days.
“We finally get off at Penn Station and it’s a disaster,” Borrelli says. “We were supposed to stay with my friend’s sister, but she’s living in some Episcopalian home for women. We end up in this sketchy hostel with a phone in the hallway. Which is terrible, because this is 1999 -- no cell phones. I’m trying to call Terry O’Brien to get an audition. I keep leaving messages, but I don’t know if he’ll call back -- or if I’ll even get the message.”
Borrelli and his friends had a few days in the city before the grueling two-day trek back to Santa Fe. On their very last afternoon, when the actor had nearly given up, he got the message he’d been waiting for – Terry O’Brien would see him, but only if he could make it to the director’s office at 5 pm. Borrelli’s bus to Santa Fe was leaving at 8 pm.
“I made it. Just barely. But I made it!” Borrelli remembers with a grin. “And I guess it went pretty well, because that’s how I got cast in my very first season at Hudson Valley Shakespeare – and that’s how I got to meet John Cariani. Because he was there, too.”
In summer 1999, the Shakespeare festival was presenting Twelfth Night and Titus Andronicus in repertory. Rehearsals started in late spring in New York City, and when Borrelli reported for work on the first day, he walked into a company of experienced actors and suddenly felt a bit overwhelmed.
“And then this guy walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m John, I’m going to be your new friend.’ Classic Cariani style. And we’ve been friends ever since."
“I didn’t know anybody in the room. I was incredibly nervous and kind of shakey,” he recalls. “And then this guy walks up to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m John, I’m going to be your new friend.’ Classic Cariani style. And we’ve been friends ever since.”
The two actors enjoyed working together all summer and Borrelli soon learned that his new friend was a playwright as well as an actor. In fact, Cariani was writing a series of scenes for a play he was calling Basketville, Maine, and he ultimately invited Borrelli to join the cast in a workshop production at HERE. The young actor was excited, because this would be a real milestone -- his first performance on a New York City stage.
“My scene was called ‘Her Heart,’ and it was so fun. We rehearsed it in somebody’s living room,” Borrelli says. “I loved that piece from the start. . .Sometimes you work with a writer and his words just unleash something in you. I remember thinking, ‘This feeling is something I’ll have forever, because I worked on John’s play.”
Borrelli paused for a moment and then added, “It’s strange to think I was the first person to play that role in that play. It’s kind of hard to believe now.”
Hard to believe, because that play would ultimately become Almost, Maine – Cariani’s breakout success and now one of the most-produced plays in North America. That production brought good fortune to Borrelli as well. “That show was really the touchstone of my professional life in NYC. I got representation because of my role in John’s play, and it really launched my career in many ways. I’ll never forget it.”
Cariani went on to write several other plays, and while Borrelli has done some readings for his friend the playwright, he’s never had the chance to be in a full production of a Cariani play until now -- in cul-de-sac at Half Moon Theatre.
“I’m thrilled!” True to his word, Borrelli sounds elated when he says this. “Working with John is the best. We’re not just professional friends, we’re true friends, forever pals.”
In cul-de-sac, Borrelli plays Joe Jones and by a happy coincidence, his wife Irene is played by another friend and another alumna of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Katie Hartke. “Katie is like family. To play her husband is like stepping into a comfortable pair of shoes,” Borrelli says. “Over the years, we’ve played brother and sister, we’ve played lovers, we’ve played enemies. . .We grew up together, in a way. I can’t wait to be on stage with her again.”
Borrelli is eager to explore the light and dark sides of his character. “I love the idea of the Joneses being part of the neighborhood and yet there’s this chasm beneath the veneer they present to the world,” he says. “I think that’s something we can all relate to. We all have a way that we carry ourselves in the world – but everyone has lived through something difficult, everyone has a layer of darkness. I’m interested in that contrast. I think it’s very fertile ground.”
Borrelli adds: “Somehow we have all these ideas about what we’re supposed to obtain in life, what it is our birthright to obtain. We all grow up thinking we’re supposed to find that one person who will love us all our lives, and then we’ll have a nice little house, and nice little kids. . .we really believe we’re supposed to get that. And then suddenly we wake up and say: Here it is, and now that I have it, this isn’t what I want at all.”
“Look at me: I followed my dream to be an actor, it’s all I ever wanted to be. But if I’d known on that Greyhound bus trip what a winding and uncertain -- albeit exhilarating -- path it would be, I don’t know if I would have taken it!”
Then he laughs suddenly and says: “Look at me: I followed my dream to be an actor, it’s all I ever wanted to be. But if I’d known on that Greyhound bus trip what a winding and uncertain -- albeit exhilarating -- path it would be, I don’t know if I would have taken it!”
Still, he thinks, it’s been worth it. “After all, I’ve met some pretty incredible people along the way. Including John Cariani. So I’m glad I’m here, and I’m really glad to be in this play at Half Moon Theatre.”